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THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW | DECEMBER 2013

KASHEF CHOWDHURY/URBANA

KASHEF CHOWDHURY/ URBANA


Contributors

Produced by The Architectural Review Editor

Catherine Slessor

Designer

Heather Bowen

Editorial Co-ordinator Phineas Harper

Production Editors Julia Dawson Tom Wilkinson

Production Manager David Evans

Contributors

David Adjaye Kazi Khaleed Ashraf William JR Curtis Kenneth Frampton Göhkan Karakuş Markus Litz

Photographs

Conor Ashleigh/ACIAR Eric Chenal Kashef Chowdhury Corbis

Visualisations

Khondoker Tariqul Islam Latitude-23 Bandicom Studio d’xine Digital Construction Ltd

Models

Studio URBANA

Cover

Proposal for Cyclone Shelter, Coastal belt of Bengal

Kashef Chowdhury/URBANA

kashefchowdhury-urbana.com Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, Principal kashef.chowdhury@gmail.com

David Adjaye

Kenneth Frampton

David Adjaye is founder and principal architect of Adjaye Associates, based in London, New York, Accra, Berlin and Shanghai. The practice is currently working on projects in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. Recognised as a leading architect of his generation, Adjaye’s influences range from contemporary art, music and science to African art forms and the civic life of cities.

Kenneth Frampton is an internationally respected architectural critic who holds the Ware Professorship at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York. He lectures extensively in the US and Europe, and has also written, edited and contributed to numerous publications on contemporary architecture. He is the author of Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1980; revised 1985 and 1992) and Studies in Tectonic Culture (1995). In 2002 a collection of Frampton’s writings over a period of 35 years was collated and published under the title Labour, Work and Architecture.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is an architectural historian and urbanist who teaches at the University of Hawaii. His publications include The Hermit’s Hut: Asceticism and Architecture in India (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), Designing Dhaka: A Manifesto for a Better City (LOKA Press, 2012), and the Architectural Design issue ‘Made in India’ that received the 2009 Pierre Vago Journalism Award from the International Committee of Architectural Critics (CICA).

Willliam JR Curtis William JR Curtis is an award-winning historian, critic, writer, curator, painter and photographer. Educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London and at Harvard University, he has taught the history of art, theories of design, and architecture at several universities worldwide, among others, Harvard University, the Architectural Association, London, and the University of Cambridge where he was Slade Professor of Fine Art 2003-4. In addition to teaching history and theory, Curtis has been directly involved in architectural education in the studio and in juries. His publications include the best-selling Modern Architecture Since 1900 (Phaidon, 1982, revised 1987 and 1996), and Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms (Phaidon, 1996).

Gökhan Karakuş Gökhan Karakuş is an architecture critic, theoretician and designer who works on locality in design, Modernism and architecture. He has contributed to publications such as Architectural Record, The Architects’ Journal, Wallpaper* and Detail and is currently the editorial director of Natura magazine focusing on contemporary stone architecture. He is the founder and director of the interactive and environmental graphic design studio Emedya Design based in Istanbul.

Markus Litz Dr Markus Litz studied art history, medieval history, theatre-sciences and philosophy in Cologne and Munich. Since 1992 he has been Director of the Goethe-Institut in Sudan, Bangladesh, Argentina and Pakistan. He is currently a lecturer in Cultural Sciences at the University of Munich and the Free University Bozen-Brixen in Italy.


Preface

It is a redeeming characteristic of our pluralistic age that despite the mediatic triumph of one superficially spectacular star architect after another, a subtly differentiated culture of building still prevails. So despite the globalised character of our digital age, a topographically grounded architecture of quality may be found virtually everywhere. What is simultaneously reassuring and surprising about this phenomenon is not that the hierarchic differentiation between centre and periphery no longer has its former significance, but that a small, delicate gesture in a seemingly remote, subaltern part of our fragile geopolitical world, suddenly assumes a depth and a quality that is often absent from the juggernaut of hyper-development. The work of the young Bangladeshi architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury is further proof of this uncanny yet paradoxically universal phenomenon. As critic Kazi Ashraf remarks, Chowdhury is a ‘land architect’ according to Louis Kahn’s surprising and little known coinage of this term, a métier that invariably involves the strategy of ‘stacking’ as Ashraf has also provocatively suggested. In this the earthwork has priority and the resulting architecture has a marked topographic character as is evident from the work of this rising master architect working in a landscape where overnight the entire country may become a flood plain. Fortunately Chowdhury is never far removed for long from the diluvial roots of his origins as he described at the recent Commonwealth Association of Architects Conference in Dhaka: ‘This is Bengal, a geo-cultural region woven out of an intricate network of rivers and canals and to which all art forms respond, from the emotionally rendered Bhawaiya Songs and colours of stitched Nakshi-Kantha textiles, to the living and lost architecture of the delta.’ Reading Chowdhury’s moving, hypersensitive appraisal of his origin as an ethical architect practising in the highly charged ecological, economic and political turmoil of contemporary Bangladesh, one is reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote: ‘Life is nothing but an attempt to recover by the long detours of art the first images on which the heart first opened.’ Nothing comes from nothing, as the saying goes, and Chowdhury’s roots run deep within the culture of Bengal, rooted as much in the time honoured antique world of the Brahmaputra as in the heroic efforts made towards the end of the last century to cultivate an authentic modern culture of architecture in the region. First through the National Assembly building of Louis Kahn and later by the works of Muzharul Islam, to whom every Bangladeshi architect of stature is inevitably indebted, Chowdhury no less than any other. But what separates Chowdhury from both Kahn and Islam is his highly charged feeling for the light, rain-swept, endless plains and inundations of the Bengal delta which comes to the surface in his work through endlessly surprising forms. Many come and few are chosen but even now, sheer talent and magnanimous intelligence prevail so that with his modest ludic gestures Chowdhury rightly stakes his claim as the elect architect of his generation.

Kenneth Frampton

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context

modernity and the strata of the past

Evoking tradition without stooping to pastiche, and responding to climate, place and the specifics of here and now: Kashef Chowdhury’s work performs a delicate balancing act in a terrain as mutable as Bangladesh’s delta landscape william jr curtis

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To follow the old wisdom but not despise the new Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1912 The architecture of Kashef Chowdhury responds to the needs of contemporary Bangladesh with bold yet restrained buildings combining clear spatial concepts, rigorous construction and symbolic interpretations of the social functions of each scheme. Over the years he has defined a consistent vocabulary which relies on clear geometrical plans which project primary volumes and voids into space. These indoor and outdoor rooms are arranged as sequences experienced over time and in contrast to the surrounding landscape or city. They seem to frame the forces of nature, bringing the sky down to earth, channelling light and shadow, accepting and sluicing the rain. Bangladesh straddles the tropical delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, a liquid landscape of shifting channels and humid vegetation. Buildings need to withstand this fierce climate while also permitting natural cross ventilation. Water in the form of floods and monsoons is a perpetual challenge. The most common materials for construction are bamboo in rural regions and brick in cities, although concrete is also widely used. Chowdhury works with the materials and craftsmanship available but avoids any obvious ‘localist’ agenda. His work is rooted in the realities and even collective memories of his country but aspires to a level of generality that crosses frontiers, recalling the observation of the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo: ‘Art is universal, the accent is local’. Bangladesh is of course a poor country economically but rich in a cultural sense. It stands at a crossing point between the subcontinent of India and tropical South-East Asia yet its roots lie far in the Bengali past. The modern nation of Bangladesh was created when it fought for independence from West Pakistan in 1971, but its territory was already delimited by the division of Bengal in the period of the British Empire. East and West Pakistan were different in numerous ways, including climate, landscape, history, ethnic make-up, attitudes to religion and, of course, language. The syncretic versions of Islam in East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) resisted the imposition of an Islamic state ideology from outside. Bengalis preferred their own language, with its ancient roots in the region, to the imported and imposed Urdu. Over the centuries different civilisations have left their architectural mark in solid monuments although much vernacular construction has been in temporary materials such as bamboo and reeds. It is tempting to see the humble hut with its up-curving, boat-like roof as a sort of archetype of the region, while the different phases of monumental architecture, whether Mughal, from the Sultanate period, or from the Buddhist monasteries and stupas of the seventh and eighth centuries, manifest a recurrent obsession with centralised forms and primary geometries. These fundamental forms from ancient mandalas to centralised mosques seem to cut through the strata of time as if revealing some basic patterns of adjustment. As in many post-colonial societies, the question of the past, and how to integrate it into the present, continues to


play a role in the establishment of nationalist mythologies in Bangladesh. Chowdhury is acutely aware of the ‘presence’ of this rich architectural past but avoids reading it at the superficial level of motifs. Rather he seeks out the basic types, not to say archetypes, and transforms these through abstraction into a language of modernity. You can sense this, for example, in his Chandgaon Mosque in Chittagong of 2006–7 which fuses spatial ideas from Kahn’s Assembly in Dhaka with a reinterpretation of the local courtyard type for the mosque: it thus exemplifies his general line of thought. The earlier Liberation War Museum and Monument of Independence in Suhrawardy Udyan (1997-2013) establishes a restrained monumentality, a ritual journey through subterranean spaces of shadow, re-emerging before the vertical shaft of stacked glass that seem to solidify light and express hope in the future. In his reinterpretations of Kahn and other modern masters (there is something of Barragán in both Mosque and Monument), Chowdhury works at the level of principles rather than just forms. Kahn introduced a powerful modernity but also revealed ways of penetrating the substructures of tradition: arguably his seminal works in both Ahmedabad and Dhaka were themselves full of echoes from diverse pasts including in the latter case, centralised monumental forms in Indian tradition. To later architects seeking touchstones in the past and preoccupied with questions of post-colonial identity, Kahn’s solutions revealed new ways of synthesising the new and the old, the local and the universal.

Readings of the local and global Indian architects of the generation of Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa, Raj Rewal and Anant Raje all drew upon both Kahn’s and Le Corbusier’s seminal buildings on the Indian subcontinent while introducing critical distance and establishing their own directions and readings of local conditions and climatic zones. Chowdhury belongs to a younger generation faced by dramatic technological and social changes in Bangladesh and confronted with a generalised degradation of the natural environment, voracious urbanisation and the problematic impact of globalisation. In these conditions he attempts to combine apt responses to society with a continuing research into the discipline of architecture itself. Aside from resonances with tradition, Kahn has offered him fundamental lessons in the sculpting of landmasses and platforms, the articulation of plans, the handling of sequences, the disposition of structure, the use of materials and of course the diffusion of light in voids. However problematic as an emblem of power, however poor its response to a hot wet climate, the Dhaka Assembly Building has stood out for some Bangladeshi architects as a timeless work, an aid rather than an impediment, in the construction of a national identity through architecture. Here one must mention the key figure of Muzharul Islam (1923-2012) as a spiritual and architectural guide to younger generations and as a bridge to the international world of architecture. Without him it is unlikely that Kahn would have been the architect of the Assembly and without him it is possible that some of the philosophical implications of Kahn’s work would have been lost.

‘Chowdhury belongs to a younger generation faced by dramatic technological and social changes in Bangladesh and confronted with a generalised degradation of the natural environment, voracious urbanisation and the problematic impact of globalisation. In these conditions he attempts to combine apt responses to society with a continuing research into the discipline of architecture itself’ Muzharul Islam’s outlook combined secularism with a deep interest in ancient traditions of his country. In a sense he inherited some of the intellectual traditions of the so-called ‘Bengali Renaissance’ (late 18th and 19th centuries) which combined modern Western rationalism with a rediscovery and reassessment of the spiritual roots of Hinduism in the region, in part through the translation of texts written in Sanskrit (eg, the Rigveda, c1500 BC). Inspired by great Bengali writers like Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who contributed to world literature while returning to roots, Islam felt that provincial regionalism and superficial internationalism were both ills to be avoided. In Bangladesh, architects associated with Muzharul Islam’s Chetana Research Group have sought out links over the years between substantial modern architecture and what they consider to be spatial archetypes in their region. All this is to say that Chowdhury inherits, and contributes to, a vital architectural and intellectual culture in his own country. At the same time his work constitutes a valuable contribution to contemporary architecture: one more stream in the delta of modern architectural traditions being extended into new expressive territories in different parts of the world. For more on the Bangladesh context see William JR Curtis, ‘Modern Architecture and the Excavation of the Past: Louis I Kahn and the Indian Sub-Continent’, Jochen Eisenbrand (Ed), Louis Kahn, The Power of Architecture, Vitra Design Museum, 2012, pp 235-52; Curtis, ‘Louis Kahn, The Space of Ideas’, AR November 2012; Curtis, ‘Modernism and the Search for Indian Identity’, AR August 1987. For a nuanced idea of Indian tradition as a dynamic development combining several temporal ‘layers’, imports and transformations, universal qualities and local accents, see Curtis, ‘The Construction of the East, Myths of Indian Architecture’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 August 1991. In December 1985 the author gave a lecture in Dhaka including Kahn’s Assembly which suggested the fusion of modern forms, the geometry of Mughal tombs, local archetypes and aboriginal memories, and which questioned the local community about the appropriateness or otherwise of the building: see William JR Curtis, ‘Session 3 on Regionalism’, 17-22 December 1985, in Süha Özkan (Ed), Exploring Architecture in Islamic Cultures 2, Regionalism in Architecture, Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Singapore, Concept Media, 1986; for Curtis interventions on Kahn see p73ff, p116ff and p187ff. At the same event, Muzharul Islam, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf and Saif Ul Haque spoke together: ‘Introducing Bangladesh − a Case for Regionalism’ op cit p23ff. The substance of my own intervention was published as Curtis, ‘Towards an Authentic Regionalism’, Mimar 19, Singapore, Concept Media, January 1986. ar | december 2013 5


INTRODUCTION 1

AN Architecture of Resistance Shaped by the challenging social, physical and economic milieu of Bangladesh, Kashef Chowdhuryʼs architecture has a resonance and urgency that extends beyond its immediate locale Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

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Kashef Chowdhury’s prominence as an architect in Bangladesh began with a project quite Dantean in scope and narrative. Designed with his former partner Marina Tabassum for a 1996 competition, the Liberation War Museum is a narrative of the traumatic and eventually redemptive birth of a nation. The project is a memorial to the horrific 1971 war, which included a brutal campaign waged by the army of Pakistan on Bengali civilians that historian Gary J Bass, in his recent book The Blood Telegram, describes as a ‘forgotten genocide’. Memories of horror and remembrance of freedom presented a major challenge for the young architects in creating an appropriate architectural language for the museum. Located in a large park in the centre of the capital city Dhaka, the museum site is redolent with symbolism. You arrive at a piazza from the western side of the park onto the roof of the museum building, itself sunk into the ground. The itinerary of the visitor as well as the narrative content of the building begins here. A small monument marks the spot where the Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave his historic call to mobilise the Bengali nation. At a location nearby, the Pakistan army surrendered to the joint forces of India and Bangladesh at the end of the harrowing, nine-month war. At the far end of the piazza is the Independence Tower, a 150-foot structure sheathed in layers of glass slabs intended to refract light. But before light, there is darkness. A round pool set in the centre of the piazza indicates a subterranean realm. Water whirls towards a central orifice; the architects call it an ‘eye’, a ‘void’, a ‘black hole’. From below, the pool registers as a rotunda in which the water descends as a shaft of aqueous light. Conceived in a Piranesian chiaroscuro of light and darkness, the mood of the space is meant to be sombre, drawing you towards ‘untold stories of torture and genocide and the silent endurance of suffering’. The project also had urban design challenges. Originally a racecourse, the overall site has been converted to the current park − Suhrawardy Udyan − through impromptu planning and plantings. Like Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, the park is encircled by cultural institutions. The challenge was to retain the character of the park and transform the museum site into a hub for these entities. In such symbolically and culturally charged terrain, amplified by a programme devoted to nationalist symbolism, the architects cultivate formal restraint, focusing on the material and spatial quality of experience. In this way universal attributes are drawn out of local phenomena, and it is this subtle oscillation between the particular and the abstract that has characterised most of Chowdhury’s work since then. Reticent as a person, Chowdhury cultivates a comparable formal restraint in his architecture, which neither speaks too much, nor claims too much. The Liberation War Museum embodies key themes of topographic modulation, spatial itinerary and material expression, characterised by distinctive and precise geometry. Such sparse physiognomy apparently identifies Chowdhury’s work with that of Louis Kahn and contemporary practitioners from Peter Zumthor to Alberto Campo-Baeza and the Ticino school, yet this is not


‘Bangladesh presents a diversity that challenges architectural orthodoxies. In this often destabilised context Kashef Chowdhury holds his ground’ 2

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1. Like a temple or modern ruin, the Friendship Centre in Gaibandha is partly excavated into the lush plains of the Ganges delta 2. Kahn’s elemental National Assembly, a pivotal moment in the trajectory of modern architecture in Bangladesh 3. The Independence Tower forms part of the Liberation War Museum which commemorates Bangladesh’s struggle for independence 4. The pure white cubic form of Chandgaon Mosque in Chittagong

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the full story. Chowdhury operates in the geographic and cultural milieu of Bengal, but also with a certain dedication that cannot simply be described as regionalist. At stake here too is the perplexing obligation of being an architect in a small nation, of the demands of positioning your work both in its immediate context and a larger, world view.

Minor and universal In his essay ‘Die Weltliteratur’, the Czech writer Milan Kundera notes that: ‘Small nations … hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone.’ Consequently, the writer or artist who sets his or her ‘gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of its own people.’1 ‘Then what does it mean to work in Bangladesh?’ is perhaps Kashef Chowdhury’s point of departure but the destination is still unfolding. Each project becomes an occasion for the investigation of type, purpose and production that is both situational and universal. In Kundera’s schema, it is part of both minor and world culture. While visiting the home of Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata six years ago, Chowdhury pointedly asked me what makes a thing ‘Bengali’. To seek an answer to this question at the family home of the Bengali poetphilosopher Tagore, who mused on it all his life, seemed particularly poignant and reflects how this quest for identity consistently underscores Chowdhury’s approach. Though today Bangladesh remains in the penumbra of world architecture, the region has been a major Asian theatre of modern architecture since the late 1950s. Not only Louis Kahn’s celebrated Assembly Complex but also less well-known projects by Paul Rudolph, Stanley Tigerman, Constantin Doxiadis, Richard Neutra and other Modernists have enriched the local discourse of architectural genealogy. The Bangladeshi master Muzharul Islam (1923-2012) was central to this movement. His espousal of a rigorous, modern architecture and ethical practice resisted both the rhetoric of tradition and clamour of commerce. He called for a decisive rejection of what he described as ‘flourishes’ in architecture. For Muzharul Islam, sparseness and simplicity acquire an ethical urgency in the social and economic milieu of Bangladesh. In arguing for a deliberate deployment of a reductive language in the symbolically profligate Indian subcontinent, he once retorted: ‘Symbol for what? Symbol of what? Symbol for whom?’2 In explaining the dearth of symbolic devices in his own work, he would say: ‘The hesitation in my mind has deep roots. I feel that human society has been kept in darkness for thousands of years by the use of symbols. I revolt against it. By raising the issue of symbols, in the name of symbols, my perspective has been kept limited.’ When Kashef Chowdhury describes the intention behind a particular project as ‘simplicity in intent, monastic in feel’, this echoes and extends the ideological precepts of Muzharul Islam. For instance, in his project ar | december 2013 7


INTRODUCTION for the mosque at Chandgaon in Chittagong, while articulating the purpose and expression of an overtly religious building, Chowdhury conceived it as a minimalist cube to engage the realm of the sacred. Kashef Chowdhury’s architecture is also inflected by the epochal change that is currently redefining Asia, including Bangladesh. With transformation at every level from the infrastructural to sociological, architects must address new questions and challenges. Since the late 1980s, these transformational forces have made the practice of architecture increasingly complex. Displacing the cathartic promises of modernity, new practices of risk and speculation have set the stage for what the sociologist Ulrich Beck calls ‘second modernity’. With galloping economic growth (and frequent dips in the opposite direction) and euphoric transnational practices, Asian nations now face unprecedented urban, social and demographic realignments. The resulting explosion in city building and middle-class lifestyles has catapulted architecture beyond both the humanist ethos of Modernism and the aesthetic end-game of Postmodernism. At the same time, with the prospect of phantasmagoric architecture sitting brazenly in an ecologically frayed landscape or a mediatic network coming face-to-face with a bullock cart, it is also apparent that second modernity has to confront a number of paradoxes. Heinrich Hübsch’s rhetorical question ‘In What Style Shall We Build?’ finds contemporary relevance in the turbulence of second modernity. Although in Hübsch’s time the dilemma of 19th-century architecture was how to measure up to unassailable social and technological realities, the question of the present era is how far should architecture give in to fabulated conditions. Architectural production is at the heart of the new phenomenon. So how should architecture in Asia develop? Indeed, in what ‘style’ should architects in Asia build? Must the breakdown of Modernism’s emancipatory ideal result in withdrawal, resistance or mischief?

Notes on an architecture of resistance For Chowdhury, the clearest challenge for an architect in Bangladesh is summed up in his concern for the immediate context where, in his words, ‘attempts at creative building are stifled by the dictates of economy, constraints of means and the vagaries of kitsch’. Reluctant to succumb to the apparently inevitable destiny of the neoliberal market or the imperatives of the hyper-aesthetic theatre of architecture, Chowdhury heads towards that difficult terrain that Kundera describes as ‘the ethic of the essential’. Kenneth Frampton’s original proposal for ‘resistance’ may appear to have run its course but in the gold-rush of contemporary practice it assumes a new urgency. To the architectural historian Joan Ockman, ‘resistance’ is not simply opposing but taking a deliberate stand and ‘making conscientious decisions’ amid architecture’s problematic relationships with power and money. To play a responsible role in the world, Ockman maintains it is critical that architecture questions its own practices and does not succumb to the ‘expedient or reflexive projection of form and technology’.3 8 ar | kashef chowdhury

In the inevitable transition from Modernism’s purportedly staid forms to a seemingly energetic and often cynical production, the work of Kashef Chowdhury presents an alternative. Extending the less known but substantive legacy of Modernism in Bangladesh, Chowdhury’s work maintains a bold, and often stubborn, insistence on the ontological fundamental of architecture − to shape space and establish place. And in doing so, Chowdhury approximates the role of an arrière-garde. While Frampton identified the task of the critical arrière-garde as disavowing the optimisation of advanced technology and nostalgic historicism, you might now also add the ecstatic grip of capitalist teleology. In a context such as Dhaka, from where Chowdhury practises and where most of the building activities are concentrated in the scenario of an ‘emerging economy’, he is reluctant to give in even when facing financial challenges. Instead, Chowdhury takes on projects in which he can advance the purpose of architecture, in which he can ‘push forward inch by inch, day after day, with design, with construction quality, with [establishing the] need to have confidence in the architect ...’ 5


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5. historic precedents resonate deeply within Chowdhury’s work. This proposal for the institute of architects Bangladesh draws on the etakholamura Temple in Comilla (top) and the Choto sona Mosque in Nawabganj (bottom) 6. Plan of the Buddhist sitakot monastery in dinajpur 7. Plan of the Paharpur monastery in Naogaon 8. The configuration of these ancient sites inspired the mat-like layout of the Gaibandha friendship Centre, shown here with its green roofs highlighted

In a competition submission for the headquarters of the Institute of architects Bangladesh (2007), chowdhury offers a personal manifesto for what motivates and inspires his practice: ‘The wonderful brick temples, mosques, monasteries and other architecture of Bengal. The rational and logical pavilion form. The internalised and intimate spaces of courtyards in the vernacular. shere Banglanagar. Louis kahn and his visions beyond time.’ from the vernacular and monumental traditions of Bangladeshi architecture to kahn’s mysterious Modernism, chowdhury seeks a seamless conversation. The forms of his architecture are robust and decisive, conducted with precision and deliberation, displaying a stereotomic certitude of stability and endurance, qualities that recall the architectural idiom of kahn for which, some forty years ago, he was consigned by some to the hinterland of anachronism. Most of chowdhury’s buildings express mass over the skeletal or planar, anchored to the earth rather than levitated from, and built up as an edifice rather than installed. walls are either solid or clear openings, windows are never perforations in the wall. They are a tectonic manifesto of resistance against the whirligig of second modernity, the latter characterised by quick assembly or installation which valorises the light-footed rather than the enduring and reveals a cavalier attitude towards the ground.

The ground is an issue here. of the various themes in chowdhury’s work, a persistent one is a preference for a stereotomic disposition, using stacking as a conceptual and constructive operation. This is noticeable in the usual sense of brick masonry construction in various projects, or unconventional material usage as when stacking glass slabs in the Independence Tower, or visualising and expressing a building volume, as in his recent apartment complex, as a stack of floors. Perhaps an emblematic example in an unremarkable situation is the one-ton brick door to the bathroom in his own apartment (2001). Made of layered brick and framed in steel, the door may have been derived from a visual contingency in the interior or a material conceit of the architect, but it shows a clear instance of stereotomic or constructive expressionism. akin to kahn’s way of conceiving his ponderous architecture, the theme of stacking leads to the phenomenon of grounding, of building up an edifice as something bound to the earth, rising up rather than related to the ground mercurially. for chowdhury, each project is an occasion for investigating a typology and its modulations. In his own apartment, part of a building designed with his former partner (2000), almost at the same time as the Museum of Independence, the arrangement of the relatively small space in an apartment building in a dense neighbourhood was an opportunity for reviewing the theme of ‘a pavilion ar | deceMBer 2013 9


INTRODUCTION in the city’. In deriving a large quasi-outdoor space as the experiential and environmental focus of the apartment, the architect referred simultaneously to a pavilion or bungalow in the air, veranda, and courtyard. Conceived as a vessel sculpted inside-out, the apartment also presented an opportunity for innovations in materiality and crafting. Employing a long list of materials, but especially bricks recycled from older demolished buildings, the open space rises through what seems like an ancient monument. A major opening in the vessel is to the sky and another one, a large cut into the wall, presents a monumental window to the city. In the practice of typological modulation, the architect’s preferred planimetric parti is a diptych in which two mirrored squares are linked or dissolved to form a rectangle. In a suggestive kinship for the proposed plan of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh, Chowdhury places plans of a temple and a mosque; these rectangular plan forms suggest analogues for the design. In Chandgaon Mosque, one of the squares in the rectangle becomes a covered space, while its mirror is a courtyard. The configuration of the Friendship Centre assumes a more complex character, conceived as a topographical tapestry of woven volumes and spaces. Laid out as a mat of pavilion-like buildings, open courts, pools and walkways, the spatial quality invokes the image of an ordered village or the campus of a Buddhist monastery, or perhaps the horizontal matrix of a Mughal fort-palace. Expanding the idea of a topographical architecture, Chowdhury proposes a particular kinship with older Buddhist monastic complexes with their quadrilateral organisation, reductive disposition and exposed brickwork. Whether inspired by the archaeological remains of ancient buildings or the familiar image of stacked bricks in the landscape, Chowdhury seems to be drawn to the enigma of the brick ruin, a lyrical turn in a process that is otherwise highly rigorous and disciplined.

The art of land architecture What Chowdhury does not explicitly mention, although it repeatedly appears in his projects, is the realisation that strong geometries and the phenomenon of stacking are also essential aspects of the landscape. Whether addressed in the matrix of the capital or a turbulent coastal region, his projects participate in the narrative of ‘land architecture’. In his work for Bangladesh, Kahn was emphatic that the landscape of the region demands an ‘architecture of the land’.4 Disagreeing with the division of disciplines into architecture and landscape architecture, Kahn proposed the term ‘land architect’ as someone who looks at land from an indivisible point of view, from a condition of oneness. The principle of land architecture suggests a complex dialogue between the grounding and the rising up of a building. It is as if the building − a fact of constructedness and geometric configuration − emerges from the ambiguous earth into a precise form even if the fluid earth is still the material and genealogical source of the unfolding. This consideration of the simultaneous distinctiveness and seamlessness between architecture and landscape emerges as a consequence of stacking on a site. 10 ar | kashef chowdhury

9. Render of Chowdhury’s prototypical proposal for a cyclone shelter, a helical beacon in the delta landscape that also functions as a school

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The geometries of Chowdhury’s architecture describe a diversity of ambiguous relationships with the landscape. As a topographical project, the Liberation War Museum fathoms the depth of the earth and registers on the surface. Even for a project such as the Chandgaon Mosque, its white cubic form seems more meaningful in a milieu of green paddy fields and dark, dank ponds. Yet perhaps the clearest landscape-themed project is the Friendship Centre, a training centre for impoverished women in the north of Bangladesh, which shared joint first prize in the AR’s Awards for Emerging Architecture (AR December 2012). At the Chandgaon Mosque the relationship between architecture and landscape was deliberately dualistic. At the Friendship Centre it is much more chiasmic as the project is conceived not as a building per se, but a reorganisation of the ground in predominantly low-lying land susceptible to floods. Chowdhury’s inclination for equanimity finds social purpose in his as yet unbuilt Cyclone Shelters. The project is still looking for a client and site, but the images reveal an anchor in the tempestuous coastal regions of Bangladesh that have traditionally borne the brunt of cyclones. There are no known typological references for cyclone shelters, though many architects have attempted to define them. In Chowdhury’s proposal a ramp wraps around the shelter like a cocoon (the shelter doubles as a school during regular seasons), or spirals up like an ambulatory in a stupa. One imagines moving up the ramp on an apocalyptic night with dark, ominous clouds covering the sky and a rush of cataclysmic water where the ground was, thankful for a foothold that is grounded, rising up to reach sanctuary in the belly of the building. From the raucous city to the fragile village and vulnerable coast, Bangladesh presents a diversity that challenges architectural programmes and orthodoxies. In this often destabilised context Kashef Chowdhury holds his ground. Not motivated by tactical moves generated by economic exigency, and certainly not drawn towards hyperbole or idiosyncratic gestures, Chowdhury relies on the longer strategy of dedicated inquiry, and a belief that architecture may still be pursued as a meaningful art. 1. Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, New York: Harper Collins, 2007, p38. 2. Kazi K Ashraf (editor), An Architect in Bangladesh: Conversations with Muzharul Islam, Dhaka: Loka Press, 2013. 3. Joan Ockman, ‘One for the Sandpile’, Journal of Architectural Education, February 2009. 4. Kazi K Ashraf, ‘Taking Place: Landscape in the Architecture of Louis Kahn’, in Journal of Architectural Education, November 2007.


Liberation War Museum and Independence Monument, Suhrawardy Udyan, Dhaka

tower of light A subterranean museum commemorating Bangladesh’s Liberation War is crowned with a glowing pillar of glass


Liberation War Museum and Independence Monument, Suhrawardy Udyan, Dhaka

location plan

criticism

david adjaye My recent trip to Dhaka was an education in the extraordinary density and chaos of a city of 15 million people. The human, cultural and social ‘noise’ of the place was at times almost deafening as I tried to make sense of its urban DNA. Critical to this narrative is of course its independence, won in 1971 after nine months of guerrilla warfare, which saw widespread atrocities. I was fortunate to meet Kashef Chowdhury, who has a very special insight into this splintered history. Early one morning, he offered to show me the ‘signature’ Liberation War Museum and Monument of Independence in Suhrawardy Udyan. I write ‘signature’ with a sense of irony − as this building is a masterpiece in invisibility. It is an anti-icon and its subtlety affirms its universality. Chowdhury explores the idea of conceiving of place as a landscape, rather than a building. Eschewing a vertical presence, the tectonics come to the horizontal plane and the building sits below ground. The building is like an inverted place-marker − an elevated platform that is a public gathering space, with the museum’s chambers beneath. The square is an interval, a pause within the dense planting of the 67-acre park (a former racecourse in Central Dhaka) and provides the setting for the Independence Monument. Chowdhury, in partnership with Marina Tabassum, originally won the competition to design the museum in 1997 and construction began in 1999. Although it was largely completed by 2001, there were delays for political reasons, and remarkably, the museum is still not open to the public. On arriving at the plaza, there is a humble monument marking the site of the historic speech by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which represented the key moment for emancipation. You are then drawn to an 12 ar | kashef chowdhury

opening within a vertical wall that offsets the horizontal plane of the square. The use of cast concrete creates a sense of volume and mass; its heaviness is counterbalanced with light, which is manipulated like a primary material. The opening takes visitors down a ramp into the main museum and to a central rotunda − which is the physical and spiritual heart. The sequence of spaces leading to the rotunda are dark and brooding, mostly devoid of exhibits, apart from the black exhibit area which houses images of genocide and torture, while the rotunda itself is light-filled. The circular skylight is set within a pool that sits at plaza level and the glistening, lightinfused water falls noiselessly into the space. The effect is meditative and uplifting. The journey through the building is circular and continues upward to the plaza and the pool. Seen from above, the water appears to move silently down into the black hole of the rotunda beneath − a symbol of the untold stories of suffering. The journey ends with the recently completed Independence Monument. Rather than giving voice to the idea of ‘independence’, as with the museum, the intent here was to express the notion of ‘freedom’ as a more universal concept. Thus began the ambition to create a monument of light as a counterpoint to the dark exhibit areas in the museum below. The monument is a 45-metre tower of stacked glass panels, each 75mm in depth. These panels sit within a vertical space frame, with the glass used for its materiality rather than transparency. The result is not just reflective, but also refractive. It literally holds the light. My visit to the site was a highlight. It is a project that illustrates Chowdhury’s rare ability to tell a story of both absence and presence. It is an invisible building with a contradictory sense of monumentality that is ultimately lifted by the light, which is captured, sculpted and liberated.

1. (Previous page) at night the shimmering glass column of the Independence Monument is reflected in water 2. Transparent by day, the delicate pillar marks the museum below

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site plan

lower ground floor plan

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‘It is an invisible building with a contradictory sense of monumentality that is ultimately lifted by the light, which is captured, sculpted and liberated’

detail of glass engineering 14 ar | kashef chowdhury

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Liberation War Museum and Independence Monument, Suhrawardy Udyan, Dhaka

3. The pillar of glass forms a landmark in the terrain 4-6. By contrast, the concrete spaces of the subterranean museum are dark and brooding, their raw walls sparsely washed with light

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Chandgaon Mosque, Chittagong

sacred space A sober meditation on space and light that also affirms a wider universal sensibility, this new mosque reinterprets the architectural forms and social traditions of Islam for the current age

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Chandgaon Mosque, Chittagong

location plan

axonometric

sectional perspective 18 ar | kashef chowdhury


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Chandgaon Mosque Chittagong xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx

1. (Previous page) the mosque is a pristine cubic form in the landscape 2. (Previous page) at night light seeps through cuts and recesses and the building glows as a series of floating shapes 3, 4. Looking up to the zenith of sky and clouds through the oculus, the goal of connecting spiritual space to nature becomes apparent

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criticism

Gökhan Karakuş Located in a village on the northern periphery of Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city, Kashef Chowdhury’s Chandgaon Mosque advances Islamic culture in line with Bangladesh’s economic and material reality, yet it is also clearly and sensitively aligned to the wider project of global Modernism. The site lies at the north-east limit of the Chittagong municipality in between the urban fabric of the city and the agricultural terrain of rice paddies. In parts urban, semi-urban and rural, Chandgaon encapsulates many of the economic, urban and architectural realities of Bangladesh today. The sense is of change and transformation − bamboo and thatch huts are interspersed with the newer buildings of the rapidly expanding garment sector. Real estate speculation pervades the landscape as small-scale rice production gradually gives way to global industry. Within this evolving context, Chandgaon Mosque makes a new and definitive kind of architectural statement characterised by geometric clarity and abstraction. Its powerful contemporary language expresses a desire to live in the universal values of the present day. At the same time as a centre for community activities, the mosque also seeks to align architecture with a social sensibility.

Without resorting to historical pastiche or architectural clichés, Chowdhury’s aim was to reinterpret and reframe the organisational typology of the Bangladeshi mosque (interior main prayer space, covered entrance court). Once the basic arrangement of the mihrab wall, mimbar and walled-off congregation space is established, these elements are subtly articulated through space and light. The mihrab wall is separated from the side walls by a recessed skylight which continues down on either side of it to the ground. Light falling on the wall from the top and sides emphasises its presence as a discrete element, while the random pattern created by the niches cut into it creates another layer of geometric abstraction. The idea of sunlight and shadows playing on surfaces throughout the day is continued through other strategic cuts in the building, such as the large horizontal openings in the facade. These gestures of shaping light are subtly complemented by white walls, floors and the gleaming enclosure of the prayer space which unify the overall composition. Responding to community and social needs, Chowdhury’s spare and sober architecture is also a compelling meditation on space and spirituality. The Chandgaon Mosque expresses common humanity and a link with the divine that resonates well beyond the Muslim world. ar | december 2013 19


modern ruin

Resembling a modern ruin or temple complex, the brick arches and trenches of this training centre embed the structure in the flat landscape of the delta

20 ar | kashef chowdhury


Friendship Centre, Gaibandha

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ground floor plan

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VOID

site plan 22 ar | kashef chowdhury


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1. (Previous page) the labyrinthine warren of the Friendship Centre recalls the exposed ruins of Roman hypocausts 2. Its green roof blends in with surrounding fields 3. Open pavilions encourage cooling breezes that temper the hot, humid climate of the Ganges delta

Friendship Centre, Gaibandha

criticism

KAZI Khaleed ASHRAF In an irascible terrain that alternates between emerald green rice paddies and swirling, churning flood waters, a new project called the Friendship Centre seems like a woven terracotta raft that has been swept out from a remote village in a distant time, and now lies stranded on the flood plains that surround the small town of Gaibandha in the north of Bangladesh. With half the local population engaged in agriculture, the town is encircled by fields and mounds with homesteads, a perennial image of rural Bangladesh. The region is also not far from many wellknown Buddhist brick monasteries dating from the eighth century and earlier. A few miles east of Gaibandha and the project site flows the mighty river Brahmaputra-Jamuna, which streams down from Tibet carrying and depositing silts and sands as it braids the Bangladesh delta with intertwined channels and that delicate land-form, the char, created by fresh silt deposits. People in that region have always lived with the Janus-faced river, receiving at the same time the blessings of the alluvial soil

and brunt of the seasonal deluges. Despite being a precarious land-form, chars − with their rich soil and abundant fish − have drawn people, mostly the poorest in the country, for farming and fishing. Social conditions and economic opportunities, however, remain limited in those remote island-like chars. Designed by the Dhaka-based architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the Friendship Centre was created as a training centre for an NGO working with people inhabiting the nearby chars. The centre trains people, and also rents out the facilities for meetings, training and conferences. The site for the centre is a low-lying area outside Gaibandha, a predominantly agricultural land susceptible to flooding if the embankment for the town is breached. Prohibitive costs for landfill, as well as seismic activity and the low weight bearing capacity of the silty soil, discouraged adopting the usual response of raising the whole site above the high flood level (8 feet); limited funds for the project were directed towards the extensive programme of the centre. With topographical modulation in mind, Kashef Chowdhury decided to create a mini embankment around the site and to construct the buildings inside that enclosure at the ar | december 2013 23


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existing ground level in load-bearing, exposed brick. Rainwater and surface run-offs are collected in internal pools, and excess water is pumped off to an excavated pond, also used as a fishery. The complex is laid out as a mat of pavilion-like buildings, open courts, pools and walkways. Buildings house offices, a library, meeting rooms and pavilions, a prayer space and a tearoom. A separate area contains dormitories and spaces for private functions. There is no air conditioning in the complex; fractured and pavilion-like building volumes allow for natural ventilation and cooling, also facilitated by courtyards and pools, and earth-covered green roofs. The environmental sensitivity of the project also extends to the creation of an extensive network of septic tanks and soak wells, so that sewage does not mix with flood water. The work of Kashef Chowdhury is recognisable by its unambiguous Modernist stance marked by crisp, cubic volumes and scrupulous details. The bold, monolithic Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, designed with Marina Tabassum, was mediated only by a dramatic choreography of light and shade (although the stark concrete surfaces of the complex were partly 24 ar | kashef chowdhury

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Friendship Centre, Gaibandha

4. Situated in a watery landscape, run-off is collected and the excess pumped to a fish pond 5. Plan of the Buddhist Sitakot monastery in Dinajpur 6. Plan of Paharpur monastery in Naogaon 7. In its arrangement of pavilions set within a bounding enclosure, the Friendship Centre echoes these historic sites


8.Planting brings greenery into the brick passageways 9. The centre functions as a training facility for an NGO which works with local people

site section 8

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submerged in the ground). The mosque in Chandgaon, Chittagong, shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan Award, is unabashedly Modernist: a white volume dramatically juxtaposed with the surrounding landscape of green paddies and dark ponds. Compared with these previous projects, the Friendship Centre indicates a new point of departure for Chowdhury, and architectural discourse in the deltaic region. Architects in Bangladesh, operating mostly from the capital city Dhaka, are complacently producing the kind of flamboyant buildings demanded by an increasingly energetic economy. Very few have taken up the challenge of working either in the vast rural hinterland or the environmentally delicate flood plains. Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag’s much publicised school (AR December 2006) also located in the Rangpur-Gaibandha region, is an inspiring example of working with a rural and community ethos. However, the bigger challenge of working with the hydro-geography of the delta and its environmental consequences remains largely bypassed by the architectural community. While the relationship between architecture and landscape was deliberately

dualistic in the Chandgaon Mosque, it is much more chiasmic at the Friendship Centre. In fact, it is conceived not as a building, but as a reorganisation of the ground surface, involving excavation, mounding and berming. And where Chandgaon and other previous projects were conceived as sculptural, monolithic volumes, the Friendship Centre is organised as a mat of interwoven volumes and spaces. The spatial quality of the mat invokes the image of an ordered village or the campus of a Buddhist monastery, as well as the horizontal matrix of a Mughal fort-palace. With its embanked periphery and terracottared ambience, the matrix of the complex is not unlike that of a small, fortified city such as Fatehpur Sikri. Expanding the idea of a topographical architecture, Chowdhury claims a particular kinship with older Buddhist monastic complexes with their quadrilateral organisation, stark and bare disposition, exposed brickwork, and, above all, the enigma of the ruin, all of which describe the architecture of the Friendship Centre. The ruin as a generative idea harks back to a rich genealogy, from Piranesi's architectural imagination to John Soane’s constructed

remains, but most pertinently in this instance to Louis Kahn’s obsession with the subterranean or topographical datum, represented vividly in Kahn’s aestheticisation of the building foundation (as in the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, and the Assembly Complex in Dhaka). Kahn was also emphatic that the landscape of Bangladesh demands an ‘architecture of the landʼ. Although buildings at the Friendship Centre are actually above ground, the architect’s fascination with construction photos showing the earth dig and foundation work reveals a similar topographic inclination. In the face of climate change and persisting cycles of extreme flooding, the biggest challenge for architects in Bangladesh is to configure building propositions for an aquatic landscape. With flooding as a life-world condition in the region that is increasingly taking on a cataclysmic quality due to environmental changes, the Gaibandha Friendship Centre opens up a dialogue on the scope of architecture, asking: how to configure building formations in an aquatic landscape? How to extend the idea of architecture as a manipulation of the topographic continuum? ar | december 2013 25


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SILENCE AND CHAOS

Kashef Chowdhury reflects on the poetry and paradoxes of Bangladesh and how these contrive to shape his thoughts, work and processes

Impressions. That feeling of being in the delta: hot, humid, breezy, mosquitoes. Patches of green in a sea of greens. Look up and see an ocean in clouds. Grey, white or the colours of the sun. Sun. That beautiful light I remember from my childhood − slashes of afternoon on golden straw. I remember the smell. I remember the sounds of the straw. When I say I love the rain, the sun and everything in between I mean that I want to build to enjoy the rain, the sun and everything in between. And where else but here, the home of the Brahmaputra and the Jamuna rivers, wedded together in the softest soil, moist as the womb of the mother. Before the shadow of the rock the Himalayas, the largest delta in the world touches the waters of the Bay. This is Bengal, a geo-cultural region woven out of an intricate network of rivers and canals and to which all art forms respond − from the emotionally rendered Bhawaiya songs, and the colours of the stitches of Nakshi-Kantha textiles, to the living and lost architecture of the delta. Much of my childhood was spent by the side of the river Padma, which draws its waters from the Ganges. It is difficult to put into words my memories with those waters, of the clouds – both above and soaked in reflection. And the finest and softest of all soils: the alluvial layers where the ground was still moist from receding waters. But it is not merely the impact of those elements. For me, a river is not the same again; or rain; or the darkness before a storm in monsoon. I have been forever changed by the spirituality of that land. The tropical light introduces us to the landscape of Bengal. The strong sun’s light reveals the beauty of its nature. It falls on mountains, paddy fields and trees but the rest is spilled light − lost light. It is the architect who, by the design of apertures, brings this spilled light into

26 ar | kashef chowdhury


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1. Extending from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges carves out the world’s largest delta 2. Lush green paddy fields in the flat, fertile terrain 3. The cool, dark shade of a banyan tree 4. Kahn’s Assembly Building captures light 5. A postage stamp showing traditional Nakshi-Kantha textiles 6. One of Chowdhury’s evocative monochrome photographs of Dhaka

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the deep insides of his architecture. He gives it shape, lets it play or prevents it from removing his shadows. For with the darkness of shadows comes the appreciation of light, of the colour of light, of the depth of light. Have you seen the depth of Kahn’s light? At the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Kahn brings in a silvery light, playful as the water from which the building rises. Nowhere has a space been more gracefully lit than by the magical light of his tropical sun. I am in search of shadows. Shadows under a banyan tree, behind a column or from a dark cloud. Have you ever been in a forest, a temple or in a village courtyard? Shadows have a wonderful way of celebrating the presence of light. They seem to say: we do not hide; our purpose is to reveal. Too many times we have seen buildings naked, sunburned, clad only in a curtain of glass. Let us not chase the shadows away. Then we are left with a pale, dead light. Uninspiring. Unnecessary.

There was a time when I thought I couldn’t live in the city. It was too powerful. Too much happening in too little time. Then I realised it was possible to create your own secret space in a city. It would be free from the rush elsewhere. It would have its own pace. Its own time. Is it true that if the sun hadn’t moved, there wouldn’t have been time? Or is it locked in a Swiss watch or in a Japanese pendulum? I like to leave time out of my buildings. I sense that leaves out a lot of other things: styles, trends, isms and so on. I’m tired of efficient buildings. Buildings that offer you not a moment to pause, to ponder, to wish, to recollect. Buildings that work well, better than you’d wished for and give you nothing else. In an office or railway station – yes; but in a home or in front of art in an art gallery, I look for a loss of time. Absence of time. And then there arises the opportunity for serenity to invade. And silence. The silence of a breeze. The silence of a deep sleep. The silence of a space.

Materials? Ask me not of materials. I’m still listening to the story of the clay earth, millions of years before you have uncovered it, moulded it, burnt it. For bricks or terracotta temples. I wish to know more. And I want to learn to care. Like gold in the hands of a goldsmith. The textures, the imperfections, the feeling, the beckoning.

My work used to confuse me. But it was important to be confused. I sense in confusion lie the seeds of discovery, of truth. I drink a drink from the broth of seven or ten thousand, yes thousand, years of my history and I feel alive again. The myth, the mystery, the mysticism. The emotion, the philosophy, the chaos, the romance. Yes I’m in love with the Bengali way of life. Come away with me for an hour of the sarod and you will know what I mean. But ask me not of my work for I create for the love of art. And ask me not of the present or of the future − I know neither.

The building doesn’t need ornament. The material is the ornament.

This is the text of a talk delivered at the triennial Commonwealth Association of Architects Conference in Dhaka in February 2013

I return to the comfort of the shadow, which the light has brought in.

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pavilion apartment dhaka This project, executed in collaboration with Marina Tabassum, is an exploration of vernacular tropical architecture forms such as the pavilion, the courtyard house, and the deep verandah bungalow. The court itself is a study in sun, rain and air movement. Its deep volume allows only slits of sunlight to enter the surrounding spaces, while protecting against driving rain and high winds. But more importantly, the well acts as a chimney to draw air from surrounding spaces. The court also acts as a light-well at hotter times of the day when peripheral shutters may be drawn to create a cooler interior. Louvres allow light and air to penetrate when windows are closed. Inventive and sensitive use is made of recycled materials. Centuries-old bricks of varied sizes aged in lime mortar, with beautiful imperfections, generate an unusual texture − a crinkled surface yet with a soft glow. Travertine flooring and seats are of varying sizes and shades. But an extended palette of materials also finds resonant expression: teak, porcelain chips, glass, copper, mild steel, stainless steel, zinc plates, gun metal and the colours of light that these materials reflect. Textured surfaces of brick rise from porous travertine, defects in concrete finish find their place next to machine-finished unpolished stainless steel, worm holes in teak and wavy surfaces of copper. Spanning the spectrum from man to the city, a circular cabinet has a collage on zinc plates of a satellite photo of Dhaka and the detail of the sweating body of a labourer. 1

cross section

plan 2

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1. The concrete grid of window surrounds stands out against the brick volume 2. Vertical surfaces contrast with travertine flooring and seats 3. Water runs through geometric travertine basins and channels 4. Vermiculation in the ceiling extends the trope of porosity of hard materials 5. Bricks reveal their textures under oblique sunlight; algae gives a rare bluish green colour to the brick in the rainy season 6. Shuttered concrete adds another texture, striated like a cliff face

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east elevation, Bagha Mosque, Rajshahi, AD 1523

IAB south elevation

IAB long section

institute of architects bangladesh centre dhaka

30 ar | kashef chowdhury

As well as embodying a strong civic dimension appropriate to the heaquarters of a professional body, this competition proposal for the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) in Dhaka harks back to the roots and essence of architecture in the Bengal delta. Its simple, pavilion-like form draws on the rational, logical structures of Hindu temples, Islamic mosques and Buddhist monasteries. The ground floor contains an exhibition space which is open to the public, with the first floor reserved for membersʼ activities. These are arranged around an open sky court that also functions as a gathering space. Throughout, the building employs locally produced and sourced materials − for instance, hand-moulded bricks. This celebration of vernacular techniques and traditions is married to a wider vision of what might constitute an authentic contemporary architecture in modern Bangladesh.


1. Members’ spaces sit on top of a permeable base containing a public exhibition area 2. An external sky court acts as a gathering and social space for members 3. Part of the public exhibition space. The traditional form encourages natural ventilation, while the brick structure provides thermal mass

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plan of Etakholamura Temple, Comilla, 8th-12th century

IAB first floor plan 3

IAB ground floor plan

plan of Choto Sona Mosque, Nawabganj, AD 1519 ar | december 2013 31


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beximco central headquarters dhaka

32 ar | kashef chowdhury

The headquarters of one of the largest business conglomerates in Bangladesh is a hybrid structure of steel and masonry. Large panels of glass and long spanning steel structure contrast with the partially load-bearing structure of exposed, local hand-made bricks. Facades, with the uneven texture of bricks, are punctured apparently at random by large frameless openings, which in fact provide carefully prescribed daylight to the interiors, while controlling glare from the intense tropical sun. The scheme consists of three large brick towers, visually and materially heavy and sculpted with deep recesses, connected at the top by a lighter bridge structure in steel. The towers house companies engaged in varying types of business. The bridge structure helps to tie the whole ensemble together, both in concept and in reality. Heads of the family-run enterprise have executive offices in the ‘bridge’, overseeing the business, as it were. It is also an efficient system whereby company

personnel can simply take the lift in order to engage with the top management. The project is an attempt to achieve a ‘sensible’ energy-efficient building solution. Deeply recessed openings help to control solar heat gain, as do the peripheral 30-inch thick brick cavity walls. The roofs of the three blocks are landscaped and in turn form private terraces for office suites in the bridge structure, commanding unparalleled views of the city. Some existing tall trees have been carefully retained and the design has been organised so that these fall between two major buildings in an area which also serves as a reception. The large trees form a canopy over a naturally ventilated entrance atrium. Unlike run-of-the-mill corporate architecture, the Beximco project is an exercise in the possibilities of projecting a socially responsible image of a conglomerate, of mundane materials partnered with technologically appropriate solutions and of a meaningful effort at environmental sensitivity.


location plan

perspective

1. Gaps between the masonry volumes and the steel bridge spanning them, and the lit voids of the seemingly random windows, create a complex interplay of positive and negative space 2. Model showing the contrast of brick solidity and glazed transparency

ground floor plan

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1. Render showing the stepped-back form of the building 2. Pools beside windows create a cooling microclimate 3. The central coutyard links the peripheral spaces while naturally ventilating them 34 ar | kashef chowdhury


exploded projection

house in alipore kolkata Designed for an extended family, this house is located in the quiet and exclusive residential area of Alipore in Kolkata. Both site and neighbourhood are characterised by lush vegetation. The form of the dwelling was generated by the idea of the ‘house as a temple to live in’, a concept inspired by the deep spiritual and religious practices of the client family. The ground level accommodates common living and dining spaces for the family while the parents and the son’s family each have an upper floor. The house is organised around a courtyard, which has a retractable cover for the rainy season, enabling all surrounding spaces to open onto the courtyard. Employing handcarved ‘jali’ or screens from Rajasthan, from where the family hails, all peripheral spaces enjoy a level of privacy and shading so as to take advantage of the prevailing tropical breeze. Microclimatic cooling is introduced by shallow pools of water adjacent to living spaces or bedrooms at various levels. The built form occupies only a third of the property area and the roof is paved or elsewhere greened, for leisurely sit-outs and family gatherings in the cooler evenings.

upper level plan

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friendship hospital satkhira

36 ar | kashef chowdhury

In the path of a major cyclone just a few years ago, the town of Satkhira has remained largely under-developed, and soil and ground water remain unusable due to salinity. Donated by a local philanthropist for use as a hospital, the site is in a predominantly rural landscape, marked thinly with low-rise structures and thatched houses. In this natural, nature-ravaged milieu, the aim was to build an 80-bed hospital. The layout had to be efficient and the architecture rational, but the campus also had to integrate with its surroundings. Yet above all, the building is inspired by a powerful abstraction of the riverine Bengali landscape. Areas requiring a concrete roof, such as the X-ray room, are located on the lower level of two-storey structures; all other volumes have light metal roofing to keep building weights down, a major cost factor in view of the low bearing capacity of the silty, sandy soil.

A series of courtyards bring in natural ventilation to wards, while air-conditioned spaces such as operating rooms are placed in areas in wind shadow. Penetration of direct and reflected sunlight into all wards and consulting rooms was studied in detail. In the initial stages, the need to separate the inpatient and outpatient departments divided the tight site into separate areas. Access control at various points was increasingly becoming an overriding factor for what was otherwise designed to be a campus of interconnected courtyards. The solution had to be an access barrier but one which would retain visual continuity; hence the canal which traverses the site, controlling access while collecting rainwater and surface run-off. At either end are two large tanks, which hold the harvested water − a valuable resource where the saline ground water is unusable for most practical purposes.


1. An abstract ‘canal’ runs between the brick pavilions and colonnades 2. Sketches from Chowdhury’s notebook record permutations of the design process 3. Model showing the hospital’s layout

ground floor plan 2

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cyclone shelter coastal belt of bengal

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38 ar | kashef chowdhury

In the rural landscape of Bangladesh, there are no addresses or postal codes. In fact, in remote coastal areas there are few roads by which directions can be given. Villagers usually refer to markers, for instance a large pond or a tall tree, for directions and orientation. With this in mind, the cyclone shelter needs to present itself as a marker in the landscape, so that it quickly becomes familiar to communities and people can easily find their way to it in case of emergencies. This prototypical design essentially consists of a two-storey cruciform volume with a circulation ramp wrapped around it. As well as providing access to the roof, the ramp also provides additional protection to the main structure. Light and ventilation wells set in the four corners are protected from high winds and flying debris during

cyclonic storms and the use of small concrete openings ensure adequate ventilation to those sheltering inside. Only one material is specified: exposed concrete, which is able to withstand tidal surges and high wind pressure as well as the effects of saline water and air. Interior spaces consist mainly of classrooms, as under normal weather conditions the buildingʼs primary function will be educational. Adequate bench and table storage ensures that classrooms can be cleared during storms. High ceilings and perforations in internal and exterior surfaces allow sufficient cross ventilation and the bathrooms are equipped with hand drawn tube-wells to ensure a constant supply of water. Large overhead tanks are used to collect rain water and solar panels on the roof supply power. The roof also doubles as a playground and multi-function space for the


school, and the ramp means that cattle can be taken up to the roof to be saved from tidal surges and flooding. The catastrophic nature and scale of a cyclone means that damage to livestock, crops and property cannot be entirely prevented. But the aim here is to minimise loss or injury to human and animal lives. In cyclone-prone areas, the shelter is the supreme symbol of safety and protection. Instead of merely fulfilling a functional remit, the outcome is a shelter that not only performs in the most efficient manner but also instills a feeling of safety and belonging to the people of a particular locality. And in view of its day-to-day use as a school, the building needs to encourage the attendance of children, who are often distracted from education by other tasks in the remote coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal.

1. The shelter rises above the flood plains forming an identifiable beacon in the landscape 2&3. Chowdhury’s sketches show the spiral form’s derivation from the cyclonic winds

plan 2

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cross section 4

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4. Section showing the building’s day to day use as a local school 5. Section showing the building’s emergency function as a cyclone refuge. The ramp winding around the building’s cruciform core shelters the spaces within. Livestock can also be led up to safety on the roof 40 ar | kashef chowdhury


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6-9. Chowdhury’s poignant photographs document the aftermath of a cyclone in 2007 6. Shirin survived by clinging to a tree with her father, but lost her mother and younger sister

7. Mohammad Noor Syed by the site of his house 8. The family of Alauddin Hawladar gather beside a mass grave holding the remains of 13 relatives 9. The flood waters stretch to the horizon ar | december 2013 41


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1. Render showing the cymbiform museum in its riverside site 2. Different boat-like forms are explored in the pages of Chowdhury’s notebook 3. Light percolates through the external skin of thin vertical slats

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bengal friendship boat museum and research centre savar The Boat Museum is a project aimed at reviving and preserving the rich tradition of boat building in the region. The design is inspired by the shape of boats and is to be constructed entirely of wood − supports, screens, floor and roof. Traditional techniques of timber boat building are employed and locally sourced iron wood, treated to a dark finish, is used throughout. The ‘fish shaped’ structure floats on a sheet of water − offering not depth but reflection − and the pool itself cantilevers out from the bank as if about to float out into the river Bangshi. From the insides, the water is seamless − from the edge of the wood screen to the opposite bank of the river. Details such the wood floor, which gives play to every step with a slight creak, enhance the atmospheric maritime spirit. The aroma of oils applied to the wood completes the experience: of light filtered through randomly playful screens, of  narrow passages and small spaces, of naval references and of a museum telling tales of lost and living traditions from centuries past.

site plan

ground floor plan

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1. Render showing the ovoid tower rising above the lake to augment the Dhaka skyline 2. The greenery within the building’s envelope provides vital shade and links the structure to the surrounding landscape

exploded projection of glass envelope

location plan

ground floor plan

ittefaq bhavan dhaka The narrow linear site and its north-south alignment, which necessitated a ‘planar’ envelope for the under-construction office building, prompted Kashef Chowdhury to consider his first all-glass construction. The full glare of the tropical sun does not catch most of the ovoid building’s surfaces until the afternoon, when the long west-facing facade is most susceptible to its intense rays. To mitigate its effects, a vertical shading garden is inserted in the naturally ventilated space between the two glazed skins of the western facade, randomly supplemented by elements designed to prevent solar gain: external timber louvres and internal blinds. The entire building enevelope is double glazed, and does not employ any vertical metal framing. This provides a fully transparent panoramic view of the surrounding water and cityscape, and in turn creates a strikingly green addition to the Dhaka skyline. ar | december 2013 45


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reframing architecture

From snapshots of junk apartment buildings to an open-air presentation of Kahn’s interiors, Kashef Chowdhury’s photographs explore and question the conventional perceptions of architecture Markus Litz

46 ar | kashef chowdhury

At first glance Dhaka is not a beautiful city. You have to discover its beauty, which is obscured by a barrage of visual distractions: monotonous masses of buildings, derelict factories, vast slum areas and the uninspired architecture of ubiquitous shopping malls. But beyond this there is the charm of transitoriness in the lanes of Old Dhaka, the hustle and bustle of the recreation areas around Dhanmondi Lake, the wonderfully overgrown vegetation in the midst of the city and architectural highlights such the parliament building, the so-called ‘Pink Palace’ near the Buriganga River, and the newly erected memorial for the victims of the Liberation War. And of course there are the Bangladeshi people who create an atmosphere of unforgettable warmth and retain a zest for life in the face of existential challenges. Dhaka is Kashef Chowdhury’s city and the main source of his inspiration. Most architects in Bangladesh took their initial idea of international architecture from the model that Louis Kahn gave as a gift and heritage to the city of Dhaka and the people of Bangladesh: the National Assembly Building. This emblem of modern architecture has fascinated generations of architects in Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent. In 2001 Chowdhury presented an open-air exhibition in front of the building, in celebration of Kahn’s birth centenary. The black-andwhite images gave a unique insight into the building, which is unfortunately not open to the public. They focus on architectural details: the roof of the interior mosque, the interplay of light and shadow or the sophisticated connections between exterior and interior spaces. Chowdhury tries to make the ‘idea behind’ visible as opposed to postcard-images of this symbol of Bangladesh’s independence and democracy. In the recent past, Dhaka has been assailed by a rash of boxy apartment buildings. These ‘pigeon holes’ are not


only architecturally banal but also cause manifold problems to the environment. In 2003, Chowdhury designed an installation for Dhaka’s Goethe Institute that focused on this development. Entitled ‘748’, the installation questioned the solely profit-driven activity of developers, who fail to show any concern for the quality of the architectural or urban fabric. ‘748’ is the random number of apartment buildings photographed for the project, using one-time use-and-throw cameras mimicking the carelessness of developers blinded by profit-making. Laid on the floor in a grid, the photos showed repetitive buildings born out of haste and indifference. It is not easy to describe the language of Chowdhury’s photography. The Greek term photos graphein means ‘writing with light’. The photographer’s task is to discover his unique expression by finding the proper balance between light and shadow. Chowdhury’s predilection for black and white is rooted in his knowledge of the essential in photography: it is the fascination for the subtle transitions of grey. The strangely poignant images from the early days of photography (paradoxically) have this expression of uniqueness that Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ of an image. But in times of growing uniformity and of mass dissemination of images, the uniqueness of the image is at risk. Digitally altered photography and the many supposed advantages of new media now mean that photography as an art is diminished, appropriated to spread the ideology of consumerism. Chowdhury follows a very different path. His preference for black and white, his concentration on evoking the ‘idea behind’ and his obsession for details create an aesthetic opposed to the mainstream ideal of easily available visual stimuli. It is an aesthetic of pars pro toto (a part taken for the whole) and speaks to us as the decisive element in our perception. The ordinary habit of viewing is contaminated by shallowness. Instead, the viewer is impelled to detect the crucial detail and focus on it. Chowdhury’s art is to make us accomplices of his visual investigations. In 2005 Chowdhury travelled to Europe at the invitation of the Goethe Institute. On his return he

1. Exhibited in the open air, Chowdhury’s photographs of Kahn’s National Assembly opened the otherwise inaccessible interiors of that structure to the people it represents 2. On a trip through Europe, Chowdhury turned his camera not on overfamiliar postcard fodder but the unfamiliar 3. His serial presentation of details of cheap and hastily erected Dhaka apartment buildings refers to the interchangeability of such housing

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presented a selection of photographs taken during his stay in different parts of Europe. These were not the usual architectural tourist images. His focus is entirely different. One photograph presents a view from a train: a wide field, with the tiny silhouette of a nuclear power plant in the background. The huge clouds of smoke allude to a hidden danger, while the contour of a hand gestures in explanation. This is not a conventional snapshot or a meticulously staged photographic study but rather a situation that tells a story. Chowdhury’s photography is a reflection on the way we look at things and how a particular situation is transformed into an internal image. The space of this transformation is not the image itself, but rather our mind and our perception. The photographer enables us to perceive what we are usually only aware of in dreams: the painful joy of our memories.

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Kashef Chowdhury/Urbana  

A special issue of The Architectural Review

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